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Lapira shoots for a repeat performance

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Joseph Lapira knows the M.A.C. Hermann trophy is an exact replica of a No. 5 soccer ball and weighs 10 pounds.

It was written on the back of the program at the presentation ceremony. He studied it as he waited for the winner of the trophy to be announced.

He knows that the crystal soccer ball given to the winner is made in Tyrone County, Ireland. His mother is Irish, so maybe that's why that part sticks out in his mind.

The junior forward knows the award is given to the player recognized by college coaches as the nation's top player.

What he's still trying to grasp is the fact that he was selected as the Hermann trophy recipient.

Him. A kid nobody showed much interest in recruiting. A kid from Louisiana who was the fifth or sixth player on his youth club team. A player who wasn't even on the preseason watch list for the award. Now, he has been named the best college player in the country.

"When they announced the final three [Lapira, Boston College's Charlie Davies and Southern Methodist's Jay Needham], it was a bit overwhelming," Lapira said. "Coming from last year, I would have never thought I'd be a in a position to win the Hermann, nonetheless be right up there and winning it."

But 22 goals and 50 total points later, his name was being called. From the podium, he tried to look out into the crowd and find his mother Kate, who had come up from his hometown of Lake Charles, La., but the lights were too bright to make out anything.

Although he couldn't find her, she was almost as nervous and as delighted as her son.

"It was amazing," Kate Lapira said. "It was just wonderful. I don't even know how to put it into words. I was just lucky to be there."

Her son felt the exact same way as he somehow made it through his acceptance speech, the one that nearly stopped his heart when he found out he had to give it before a nationally televised audience.

"I'm not even sure what I said, I was so nervous," he recalled. "I don't know if you could tell, but when I was on the podium, my hands were shaking."

Public speaking did what no opponent was able to do to Lapira this season: work up his nerves.

His calm, collected attitude was probably what helped get him to that point. There's often a certain attitude one has to have to be a stellar goal scorer. A competitive drive that seems to border on ego, but Lapira lacks that mentality.

"When I miss a good chance, the first thing I'll do is look back to whoever played it to me and say, 'Good ball,'" Lapira said. "Whereas maybe I should hit myself in the back of the head and say, 'Why didn't I make that shot?' But that's something I did last year, and I'd take myself out of the games a lot."

He simply let it go this season, and that's when the goals started to come. With it came the accolades, first player of the week honors and then the Hermann hype.

"Someone was telling me earlier that I wasn't even on the preseason All-Big East team, which doesn't surprise me," Lapira said. "I didn't deserve to be. Before the season, I had absolutely no inkling I'd be getting the Hermann Trophy."

Then Notre Dame's 5-4 overtime win at Indiana got people paying attention, to the Irish and to Lapira, who scored four of his team's goals.

"For me to get four of them, it seemed like a joke," Lapira said. "I would never have believed that would happen."

Even after winning the award, Lapira sums up his role on the team saying, "I kind of just get on the end of things, maybe get the ball and touch it by a defender and get a shot off."

Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark laughs at that summation.

"He does it really well, though," Clark said. "That's the way he is. That is his job and that's correct, because he's the furthest guy up the field and his job is to score goals, but having said that, he does it better than anyone else I think I've ever had."

Numbers were the furthest thing from Lapira's mind, but his teammates made sure to give him a hard time when he became the leading scorer in the nation. It's because of his teammates that Lapira got this far. Of course, that's the case behind any top player, and it's the mentality Clark expects from his players.

Lapira was one of two Irish players to make the semifinal cut, along with midfielder Greg Dalby. It was the second time in three seasons the team had a pair of players make it that far.

"We had two semifinalists a couple years ago in 2004," Clark said. "We've been knocking on the door the last few years, but to actually win it was just a fantastic honor for the program."

It was a tremendous honor for Lapira, as well. That was something Clark had to tell his player.

"[Coach] kind of downplays [individual awards] and says that's great and all, but it's not really what we're working for," Lapira said. "Through his mentality, I kind of developed the same thing. ... After I won, I think he kind of saw that I was carrying that and he was like, 'I stress not focusing on individual awards, but this is an award you should be very proud of.'

"He gave me, like, a 10-minute talk about how even though the individual accolades are not important, this is a real honor and that I should be proud of that. That kind of made it special. Don't get me wrong, I was very happy to get the Hermann award, but coach's viewpoint just helped keep it in perspective."

That's what Clark wants to see from Lapira in the coming year -- an ability to keep things in perspective. Heading into his senior season, Lapira will be expected to be even more of a leader.

"Everywhere he goes within our squad, within our school, how Joe carries himself around campus, on the soccer field, everywhere Joseph goes, he's going to be known as the Hermann award winner," Clark said. "He's got a great opportunity to be a role model in so many different ways to so many different people."

That's a role Lapira takes to heart, whether it's to his younger brother Michael, an aspiring college player, or to his Notre Dame teammates, from fellow starters to "the guys that don't really play, but are every bit as important."

A year ago, he and Clark sat down for half an hour after the season and discussed the role Lapira would have on the team this season. The two had a 12-hour version of that talk this year as they made the drive to St. Louis for the award ceremony.

"Joe's ears are still ringing," Clark said of the talk.

Small technical improvements are always possible, but for Lapira, his coach feels next season will be about providing leadership and handling adversity. The forward will be returning from knee surgery and will also have to deal with the scrutiny that comes along with being the returning Hermann trophy winner.

"There will be pressure on him to repeat, but for me, Joseph plays with the same energy whether he's scoring goals or not," Clark said. "It will be harder next year because he certainly won't sneak up on anyone anymore. He was the top goal scorer of the year [in 2005], but he hadn't scored enough goals that anybody really worried about him. But if he's going to be a good goal scorer, let's be honest, that's what happens to all of them."

By "them," he means the best players. That's a club in which Lapira, who hadn't received any real individual recognition since high school, is now a bona fide member.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.). She can be reached at